Plastic-Eating Bacteria Brings Hope To Philippine’s Plastic Dilemma

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Philippine’s plastic situation is one of the worst, but thankfully, there is a glimmer of hope for the country’s plastic dilemma.

A group of students has discovered microorganisms that are capable of “eating” plastic in a hyper alkaline spring in Zambales in the southern area of the country. The discovery of the plastic-eating bacteria paves the way to developing a new approach in solving the plastic problem that the third world country is currently battling.

The study that led to the landmark discovery was conducted by researchers from the biology department of the University of the Philippines – Baguio where they uncovered four strains of bacteria that are proficient in biodegrading low-density polyethylene (LDPE), the kind of plastic typically used for plastic bags, cling wraps, shampoo bottles, and other single-use plastic containers.

The study, written by Denisse Yans de la Torre, Lee Delos Santos, Mari Louise Reyes, and Ronan Baculi, was published in the Philippine Science Letters last year.

Researchers said that some bacterial strain they collected from rock crevices of the Poon Bato spring in Botolan, Zambales are capable of decomposing LDPE, a kind of plastic that is highly resistant to degradation under natural conditions.

They said that four out of nine of the bacteria they isolated from the sample area in the spring significantly reduced the weight of plastic polymer they were introduced to during the 90-day incubation period.

Once the bacteria are done consuming plastic polymers, they produce environmentally friendly by-products that can be degraded easily, the researchers explained.

“Results revealed changes in physical structure and also chemical composition of the films. Another method which determined plastic utilization of the bacteria was the evident decrease in the weight of the films,” the office of the UP vice president for academic affairs said in a briefing about the study.

“Protein analysis also indicated that bacterial cells could live and proliferate with films as the source of energy. Looking at the physical and chemical changes of the plastics before and after some time with the bacterial isolates, it was deduced that these minute organisms could possibly end plastic domination by making a meal out of it,” it added.

The researchers hypothesized that the plastic-eating capabilities of the bacteria might have been caused by their exposure to extreme conditions in the hyper alkaline waters of the spring forcing them to adapt to the environment through mutation.

PLASTIC SITUATION IN THE PHILIPPINES

The Philippines has a long-standing problem in waste management and plastic disposal. The country is included in the list of the most polluted countries with plastic. Many environmental advocacies have been launched to mitigate the problem but to no avail. The Philippine government has initiated several programs to diminish the plastic problem and protecting natural bodies of water like the recent closure of Boracay and the clean up of Manila Bay, but the plastic pollution is so massive that it cannot be resolved quickly.

A study conducted by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) on 2015 show that the Philippines wastes 6,237,653 kg of plastic per day, of which more 80% were mismanaged. The study placed the Philippines in the five countries that it named to have contributed to half of the plastics around the world.

“About half of all of the plastic waste that ends up in the oceans comes from just five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam,” the UN report reads.

Despite the grim assessment, the UN report commended that local ban on plastics enforced in certain areas. In the case of the Philippines, certain cities have said no to plastic like Makati, Quezon City, Pasig, Muntinlupa, Las Piñas, and Pasay.

The country has the Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 as the standing legislation that contains provisions for “recycling programs for the recyclable materials, such as but not limited to glass, paper, plastic, and metal,” but it seems that legislation is not enough to resolve the problem.

According to the UN report, 300 million tons of plastic waste is produced every year and “half of all plastic produced is designed to be used only once and thrown away.”

Single-use plastic products include plastic water bottles made with polyethylene terephthalate (PET); harder plastic bottles used for shampoo or milk made with high-density polyethylene (HDPE); grocery bags and food packaging made with low-density polyethylene; and plastic cutlery made with polystyrene (PS) among others.

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